How We Learned about Race and Racial Reconciliation (and You Can, Too): Part 1, African-American Church and Education through Relationships

In my blogging, I have generally minimized talking about myself and my experiences. However, rereading Being White for my previous posts reminded me of the power of someone’s story. Harris and Schaupp shared powerful stories related to their learning about race, racism, and racial reconciliation. I believe that Jesus is the ultimate reconciler and that followers of Jesus can and should be involved in confronting racism and working toward racial reconciliation. As human beings, division comes so naturally to us and our sinful natures, but Jesus has clearly shown that it is possible to break through the dividing walls that so easily separate us (see Eph 2, for example). I also believe that Jesus is calling and preparing his followers to work as reconcilers. This call came to me and my family in a series of steps. I want to outline a few of those here in hopes that they will encourage you and perhaps help you to take practical steps toward becoming involved in racial reconciliation.

Step One: Cross-Cultural Ministry

Our journey began in seminary with a sense of calling to cross-cultural ministry. I took a course in cross-cultural evangelism and went on to work closely with the professor of the course (Dr. D’Amico). He got us involved in ministering to Russian-speaking immigrant families. A few years later we moved to Chicago and continued down that same road by joining a Chinese church, where we were part of the English-speaking congregation. The pastor of that congregation began to recommend books to my wife, who was the missions person on the church’s leadership team. We read Real Hope in Chicago by Wayne Gordon and books on Christian community development by John Perkins. Perkins kept on emphasizing the need for racial reconciliation as part of community development. It seemed puzzling to us, because we had so little understanding of the role of race and racism in urban communities. This might seem strange, since we were living in a suburb of Chicago. But it was true. We were clueless when it came to race and a need for racial reconciliation.

Step Two: Joining an African-American Church

Then something happened that opened up an opportunity for learning. Our lease ended. We had to find a new apartment away from the seminary campus of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Where would we go? Somehow, God led us to Waukegan, north of Trinity. It was a racially diverse community and more urban than anywhere we had ever lived. It felt like the city to us. We would regularly go out on walks and encounter homeless people and see evidence of both decline and attempts at renewal. Our house was right across the street from the police station, but also just a few blocks from the county jail. This was not the nice suburban feel of Deerfield, where Trinity was located. The next steps were critical. Where would we go to church?

Due to a recommendation from a friend, we found ourselves at Waukegan Baptist Bible Church (WBBC), an African-American church that advertised a vision for racial reconciliation. There were a few White people there, but not a significant number. We may have been the only White family. We felt conspicuous. My most uncomfortable early experience was being hugged so much by people I did not know. Most of the music was unfamiliar. Everyone seemed to know how to clap, sing, and move with the music at the same time. But we were definitely welcome and given hope that we could learn a lot there. Every Sunday felt like a new opportunity to observe and try new things. The pastor, Pastor Randle, was so encouraging and almost immediately opened up opportunities for us to serve there.

Step Three: Becoming Friends with the Whiteheads

Around the same time, our friendship with the Whitehead family began to take off. They were an African-American family. Elmer and Lisa were studying at Trinity and had three kids. Our relationship began on the Trinity campus shortly before we moved to Waukegan. They also eventually became members of WBBC. We indicated our desire to learn about racial issues and racial reconciliation. They seemed ready to talk and to share their perspectives. We began to have honest conversations about race and to develop friendships that continue to this day. We could ask them questions and talk about what we were learning.

Concluding Thoughts

So, this is how we got started thinking seriously about race and racial reconciliation. In the next post, I will talk about a few things that we learned early on about these topics from our church involvement, our relationships, and our reading about race.